At the times when everything seems bleak, a true leader continues to inspire, motivate and encourage her or his followers to endure the pains and make necessary sacrifices. The leader remains steadfast and demonstrates how to remain engaged and make such sacrifices and takes the necessary steps forward. Bangabandhu was such a leader who gained strength from his surroundings, including the natural world. He went through all the ordeals of the prison life and learned how to be alone and yet connected; how to remain bonded with his followers and shape the future of political outcomes despite all odds. He learned from nature about how not to lose hope even if the ‘walls’ around him were crumbling. His ‘Prison Diaries’ is full of stories of oneness with nature, compassion for others and believing in hope against despair. And thus, he moved on and overcame all challenges.
Nature, indeed, helped Sheikh Mujib a lot during his solitude in prison. He became a great friend of nature. He liked spending his time there walking and sitting, watching the view of the garden. On 24thJune 1966, he wrote about the Kamini and Shefali (two of the indigenous flowers) trees outside his cell. He was blissfully happy to narrate how the Kamini flowers would fill his room with fragrance. His baby chicks and baby pigeon would walk gracefully around in the garden (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, “Prison Diaries”, Bangla Academy, second reprint, 2019, p.115). He would spend a lot of his time just gazing at the view. He wrote, “The flower garden is my only friend; I’ve fallen in love with it. The people I love and care for are so far away although so close by!” (ibid. p.120) Sheikh Mujib was always compassionate towards others in the prison. His wife had given him some mangoes which he shared with other prisoners (ibid, p.119). He came to know that one of his political colleagues, Khwaja Mohiuddin from Narayanganj, had been arrested and had an examination in two days. He could sit for the examination as there was a High Court directive to the jail authority to let him do so. However, he was not given a division. Instead, he was placed in the notorious Cell 20 with minimum facilities. Mujib worried that Mohiuddin would be troubled by the mosquitoes and had a mosquito net sent to him (ibid. p.122). He further wrote, “Since he has become my neighbour, I will be able to arrange things for him. He’ll not have to suffer a lot.” He had many praises for Mohiuddin, who was such a strong-willed and courageous political worker that he was not at all intimidated by this ill-treatment of the jail authority. Mujib remarked that Mohiuddin would ‘one day become famous as a leader’ because of his mental strength and ‘spirit of self-sacrifice.’ (ibid. p.122)He would also often tell different personnel in the jail administration to give better services to his colleagues and improve their living conditions. His compassion was not only limited to his political colleagues. He also felt sad for prisoners that were serving other sentences not related to politics. He wrote about Nuruddin who was convicted for murder. Nuruddin was kept in the cell next to Mujib and he was a good singer. Mujib liked to listen to his songs, particularly those whose lyrics and tunes were rooted in the soil of Bengal. He came from a good family but became a ‘terrible’ prisoner as he was very upset with his imprisonment and misbehaved with the jail authorities. As a result, he was not getting any credit for good conduct in jail. His jail-term was not likely to be reduced for that reason. He was not very keen on that either. On one instance, Mujib told him to mend his ways and serve his sentence obediently. Nuruddin replied that he would rather die than face his parents. Mujib said, “Although it’s very unlikely, if I get out of prison before you do then come and meet me. I’ll write to your father and brother. But once you are out of prison, stay home for a while and don’t set your foot on that crooked road this time.” (ibid. p.127)
The others also admired Mujib for his caring attitude towards his fellow jail mates. The security prisoners of Cell 26, many of them there since 1958 or even British days, had a garden and produced a lot of vegetables. They used to send Sheikh Mujib vegetables from their garden across five cells, for which they had to bargain hard with the jail authority. He was very pleased and showed his deep regards for those political detainees. In his own words: “It makes me so happy to think that they have me in mind and care so much for me. They are the sacrificing sort; they have sacrificed many things for our country’s sake. They have given up so much of their lives in this cruel prison! I send my greetings to them. They know that I have been kept in solitary confinement and that this is very painful for me; perhaps these are the reasons they are so sympathetic.” (ibid. 129) Mujib too was respectful and sympathetic to all progressive politicians irrespective of their party affiliations.
In his diary entry of 3rd July, Sheikh Mujib wrote about NAP activist Abdul Halim. He was sick with a fever. Sheikh Mujib went out on a walk and met Halim when he was being taken to the hospital. In his own words, “I moved towards him and put my hand on his forehead to find out if he had fever – he had a high temperature! I said, ‘Halim, no matter which party you belong to, it has to be said that you have contributed to the movement for democracy in East Pakistan. In 1949 you were with me in the Awami League and made a lot of sacrifices then. If you want anything, let me know; don’t hesitate. I respect you for the sacrifices you’ve made.’ He went to the hospital. I said goodbye to him and prayed silently for his recovery.” (ibid. p.143) Mujib also worried about all the prisoners who had no mosquito nets as there was an abundance of mosquitoes in the prison (ibid. p.144). He got to know that a boy who was taking the exam had fallen sick. Mujib sent the boy coconut water and made the physician visit him and prescribe medicine. This helped the boy recover and he could take his examination (ibid, p.148). Even though he was kept in solitary confinement, Sheikh Mujib stayed updated on what was happening in the prison and looked out for those around him. Even in 1949 when he was taken to jail, he would talk to other prisoners and the authorities apparently did not like those exchanges (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, “Unfinished Memoirs”, UPL, 2019, fourth impression, p.165).
Simultaneously, he kept updates on the political situation of the country through newspapers that were delivered to him. In his diaries, he expressed his opinions on different political events that took place. He seemed to have believed that the people of Bengal would be ultimately successful in fulfilling their demands. Many Awami League leaders were being arrested. Regarding this Mujib wrote, “Let our activists learn to endure the discomfort of prison life; this will instil the spirit of self-sacrifice in them. Such sacrifice is certainly needed. It is through such sacrifice that people will be freed.” (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, “Prison Diaries”, Bangla Academy, second reprint, 2019, p.168).
The author, a former Governor of Bangladesh Bank, is an Honorary Professor of Development Studies and Bangabandhu Chair Professor at Dhaka University. He can be reached at [email protected]